The Detective Novel Analysis

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the eighteenth century, the chaplain of Newgate Prison in London was authorized to publish the stories of notorious criminals in The Newgate Calendar. From this practice sprang the often wholly fictional Newgate novels, accounts of sensational crimes. In France, François Vidocq, a criminal himself, became head of the Sûreté and later published his memoirs recounting his exploits in capturing criminals. It is also likely that some of the ambience of the early detective story was derived from the gothic novel. William Godwin’s Things as They Are: Or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794; also known as The Adventures of Caleb Williams: Or, Things as They Are; best known as Caleb Williams), for example, although not a detective novel, is a story of a crime solved in order to free an innocent man.

From these beginnings, it remained for Edgar Allan Poe to devise the detective story in its now familiar form. Poe wrote three short works that are certainly detective stories, as well as others that are sometimes included in the genre. The first of these was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), which was followed by “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845). Poe initiated the device of establishing the character of the detective and then using him for several stories. Poe’s detective, M. Dupin, is a recluse, an eccentric, aristocratic young man with a keen analytical mind. He has an unnamed but admiring friend who marvels at Dupin’s mental prowess and is willing to be his chronicler. Dupin examines the evidence in a given case and solves the crime after the regular police have exhausted their methods—a circumstance that was to become one of the commonplaces of detective fiction.

Apparently impressed by Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de la police de Sûreté jusqu’en 1827...

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Detective fiction’s golden age

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

With Trent’s Last Case (1913, revised 1929; also as The Woman in Black), by E. C. Bentley, the modern era of the detective story began. Mary Roberts Rinehart modified the pattern of the detective novel by providing a female amateur as a first-person narrator who worked with the official police and who provided the key to the solution almost by accident. Another prolific writer was Carolyn Wells, who wrote seventy-four mystery novels, most of which starred Fleming Stone as the detective. She also made an important contribution to the theory of the detective story with The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913).

As the detective story moved closer to its “classical” stage, it became more realistic and was written with more literary skill. The detectives became less bizarre and less inclined to become involved in physical danger or in personally grappling with the criminal in the manner of the great Holmes. The adventure-mystery involving a sleuth who was proficient both physically and mentally was given over to thrillers such as the Nick Carter stories, while the strict detective tale became purely analytical. In this form, the detective story featured the detective as its chief character and the solution to an interesting mystery as its chief interest. There was generally a narrator in the Watson tradition and an absence of any love interest, and neither characterization nor the tangential demands of the plot interfered with the central business of unraveling the puzzle. With these characteristics established, the detective story moved into its golden age.

The period of 1920 to 1940 represented the golden age of the novel of detection. It included the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Earl Derr Biggers, and S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright). Hundreds of novels were written during this period and were enjoyed by people at all levels of literary sophistication. The expectation of the reader was that a clever detective would be faced with a puzzling crime, almost always a murder or a series of murders, that had not been committed by a professional criminal; the solution of this mystery would come about by the examination of clues presented in the novel.

Dorothy L. Sayers was perhaps the most literary writer of the practitioners of the detective novel; she attempted a combination of the detective story and the “legitimate” novel. The Nine Tailors (1934) is a good example of the work of her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and of her careful research into background material. She is considered to be one of the finest of the mystery writers of this period. Lord Peter Wimsey is a snobbish man given to airy commentary and a languid manner, but he has the analytical skills...

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Hard-boiled detective fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the 1930’s, while the classic detective story was thriving, another kind of mystery story came into being—the hard-boiled detective novel. The preeminent writers of this school were Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and—in the next generation—Ross Macdonald. Some of these writers began writing for Black Mask, a pulp magazine, in the 1920’s. Hammett’s Sam Spade, who appeared in The Maltese Falcon (serial 1929-1930, book 1930), is characteristic of the new detective: a private eye in a not-very-successful office who solves crimes by following people around in unsavory neighborhoods, having fights in alleys, and dealing with informers. He is cynical regarding the political dealings that go on behind the scenes and is aware of the connections between criminals and the outwardly respectable. He trusts no one, while he himself follows the dictates of a personal code. Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934), which became the basis for a series of motion pictures, was a return to the more traditional form of detective fiction.

Another member of the hard-boiled school was Raymond Chandler, who wrote seven novels featuring his sleuth Philip Marlowe. Chandler, describing the ideal detective hero, said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Such a man is aware of the corruption he will find, but he is governed by a code that includes faithfulness to the client and an abhorrence of crime without an avenging or sadistic bent. Chandler specialized in complex plots, realistic settings, and snappy dialogue in novels such as The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). He was also a theoretician of the detective story, and his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944) is an important document in the annals of crime literature.

After the introduction of the hard-boiled detective and the many...

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Police procedural novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While the hard-boiled mystery developed one element of the classic detective novel—the appeal of a recurring hero with yet another case to solve—in a strikingly new direction, the sheer fascination of deduction that characterized the golden age of the detective novel was developed in a new subgenre: the police procedural, a kind of fictional documentary often purporting to be taken from actual police files. These stories detail the routines of investigative agencies, taking the reader into forensic laboratories and describing complex chemical testing of the evidence. Hardworking police officers interview suspects, conduct stakeouts, shadow people, and investigate bank accounts. Even if there is a major figure who is in charge of the case, the investigation clearly is a matter of teamwork, with standard areas of expertise and responsibility: in short, a realistic depiction of actual police methods.

These stories date from World War II and are typified by the television series Dragnet and Sidney Kingsley’s Broadway play Detective Story (1949). One of the major writers of the police procedural is Ed McBain, who wrote more than thirty novels about the “87th precinct” in a fictional urban setting that closely resembles New York City. The police procedural has proved to be a versatile form that can be used as the basis for a symbolic story with intentions far beyond that of crime solving, as in Lawrence Sanders’s The First...

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New subgenres

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While retaining many of its traditional core characteristics, detective fiction in the last decades of the twentieth century became increasingly varied, with many new subgenres emerging. Among the most popular and highly regarded writers that became prominent during this time were P. D. James and Dick Francis of England and Elmore Leonard of the United States. James writes in the so-called golden-age tradition of such authors as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh (both of whom are still widely read). Her novels, longer and denser than most in the genre, have series detectives (Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh and private eye Cordelia Gray) who are neither stereotypical nor two-dimensional but rather singular people whose private...

(The entire section is 2107 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Barzun, Jacques, and Wendell Hertig Taylor. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Highly personal compilation by two voracious readers of crime fiction contains more than five thousand brief descriptions and judgments of works in most categories of the genre as well as a variety of critical studies.

DeAndrea, William L., ed. Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994. Comprises alphabetically arranged entries about mystery authors, books, and characters as well as films and television and radio programs in the mystery genre. Includes ample cross-references and occasional longer entries (covering topics...

(The entire section is 515 words.)